Israeli settlers vow: 'We will never leave'

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The Independent Online

Leaders of the 226,000 Jewish settlers of the West Bank and Gaza Strip vowed yesterday to thwart evacuation of their homes, which would end their dream of a biblical state from the Jordan to the sea.

For Elyakim Haetzni, a vitriolic pioneer settler in Hebron, Sunday's Israeli cabinet vote in favour of the road-map for peace in the Middle East was an act of "national treason".

Asked about an opinion poll that showed 56 per cent of Israelis supported the road-map, he said Jews had willingly boarded the trains taking them to the gas chambers. Jews, he added, had brought holocausts on themselves throughout their history.

The road-map provides for evacuation of the occupied territories and creation of a Palestinian state by the end of 2005. The first phase calls for a freeze on the growth of official settlements and the complete evacuation of settler outposts set up since 2001.

Mr Haetzni stopped short of branding Ariel Sharon a traitor. Placards have already surfaced doing just that. "Sharon is the greatest builder that we ever had, and the greatest destroyer. Today he is in a destructive phase," he said.

Yesterday the settlers threatened to "return to the streets," as they had done after Yitzhak Rabin's Labour government signed the 1993 Oslo accords.

"This decision is even worse than Oslo," Pinchas Wallerstein, a former chairman of the settlers' council, said. "It is the first time an Israeli government has recognised another state west of the Jordan. We'll make every effort to change it."

Yitzhak Medad, a veteran settler, said: "Sharon was a brilliant general, a great tactician, a political strategist, but he's a lousy diplomat."

The settlers are bitter because they remember that, as a patron, Mr Sharon encouraged settlements, but as Defence Minister he evacuated settlements from Sinai under the 1979 treaty with Egypt. They fear his pragmatism.

Mr Medad, an American immigrant who has lived in Shilo, between Ramallah and Nablus, for 20 years and raised five children there, said: "Every prime minister who's attempted to uproot Jews from the Land of Israel has succeeded in doing a lot of damage. But they're not here and we are."

As if in a display of tenacity, the population of the 130 West Bank and 16 Gaza settlements grew last year by 6 per cent.

Not all the settlers went for ideological reasons. Some of the largest, such as Ma'ale Adumim east of Jerusalem with 28,000 people, are commuter satellite towns. Families were attracted by subsidised housing and generous mortgages. But, like their messianic neighbours, they won't go quietly or cheaply.